Knocking on Harvard’s Door

a.j.k. o'donnell
4 min readFeb 21, 2023


Contemplations on applying to Divinity School

Image: Sunlight coming through a tree line on the campus of Harvard Divinity School

I wanted to publish this piece now so that it is fully honest and not overshadowed by whatever my admissions decision is.

In January 2023, I applied to Harvard Divinity School (HDS). In February, I was notified that I was invited for an interview in the admissions process for their Master of Divinity program. After the interview, admissions decisions will be announced in March 2023.

Today — February 19, 2023 — I am meditating on this entire journey. I have spent it going through every emotional space. Deep yearning. Frantic avoidance. Self-soothing apathy toward the admission decision. Denial. Excitement. Hope. Fear. All of it.

In September 2022, I was privileged to attend a program at HDS called DivEx. Along with about 40 total attendees, I was flown out to HDS. Visiting the campus was stunning. It felt — as one would expect — grand, old, and powerful. Meeting the people there was — as one would expect — nourishing, profound, and engaging. I was, and continue to be, deeply grateful and honored to have had that three-day experience.

The three days of DivEx were full of wonderful conversations, what felt like signs and nudges from the universe, and a plethora of information to consider. Yet, what I am pondering most today, is an event that took place on the second night when a group of current HDS students invited us to spend time with them on the rooftop patio of a restaurant in Harvard Square.

At some point in the evening, I descended back down to the street level to contemplate. I was alone, sitting on the curb outside the restaurant smoking a cigarette. I was wearing a Harvard t-shirt I had just purchased from the campus store because my prior outfit was causing me to sweat on the surprisingly humid night.

A young man, around my age, came up to me as he was walking by. He said, “do you go to school here?” I said, “no, I am just visiting”. He told me he had been recently released from prison, that he struggled with anger, and was frustrated with being financially unstable. We exchange words, and shared space before he continued along his way. I finished my cigarette and rejoined the group on the rooftop.

The experience of DivEx was empowering and powerful. For three days, it was as if I had been given access to a form of heaven early. A glimpse of a promised land. A community and space that felt welcoming, engaging, and important. I was surrounded by gods, prophets, and saints at HDS. And the universe, as it does, reminded me of a sacred truth. Through the presence of a young man on Brattle Street.

The universe brought me myself.

An outcast. A seeker. Someone seemingly out of place in this story. A soul struggling with difficult emotions, financial instability, and the realities of an oppressive institution and system. I have not lived through the conditions of the US carceral state. That is not my intention to suggest. I am familiar with the harm it causes, its history, and the importance of abolition work. But, the truth is I have and will always hold, far more in common with the young man on Brattle Street than the institution of Harvard University. I can layer myself with Harvard t-shirts, a degree from HDS, and all the realities that this pathway might bring. But my duty, my ministry, remains and belongs to the places and spirits I serve. Not the institutions that may train me.

I do not find it a coincidence — this metaphor of Harvard feeling like a powerful heaven and being present on a rooftop with other divinity students — all to receive the most important message when I was on the ground again, smoking a cigarette, among the crowd on Brattle Street. It brings me to the very poignant and important advice a dear loved one gave me when applying to Harvard. “Make sure you weigh what Harvard will take from you.” I pray and hold the intention, that opulence never overshadows true duty in my life. That I remain firm in why I am coming to these spaces and asking permission to enter — and most of all, who I serve.

The human in me desires to attend Harvard Divinity School — I will not deny that. And the divine in me knows I do not need to, regardless of what the admissions decision is. I am trying to hold that tension. That “struggle” — both as I await the admissions decision, and as I go forward in the ministry of my life.

In January, I submitted my application to Harvard Divinity School.

I knocked on the door.

I give thanks and gratitude for being in the waiting room, even if it is as far as I go on the path with Harvard Divinity School.

And no matter the answer, I know this sacred work continues. This life. This practice. This holy duty. This. Who I am. Who we are. Continues.

For we, as practitioners and seekers of spirit, belong to the people. We belong to each other.



a.j.k. o'donnell

wordsmith, activist, and artist. She is the author of the collection "This Void Beckons".